On December 8, on an alleged land scam in Assam involving the family of chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. Published in collaboration with Assam-based news portal Crosscurrent, the report claimed that a real estate company founded by Sarma’s wife occupies “around 18 acres of government land intended for landless individuals and institutions”, in violation of official rules governing its possession.
On December 20, 2021, the Wire received a legal notice on behalf of Vasistha Realtors Pvt Ltd, the real estate company in question. Denying the Wire’s allegations, the company said the report had been done “without proper verification of facts or proper knowledge about the law applicable with regard to purchase of land”.
While Crosscurrent was involved in investigating the alleged scam, reports on it were missing from mainstream media in Assam. The Sentinel did report on to the Wire’s report, but only to quote the chief minister as saying, “The Wire is a leftist media. So, nobody paid attention to them.”
Several journalists we spoke to in the state told Newslaundry their owners “have been told that the government will file defamation suits if they carry the news”.
As one journalist put it, the government “basically scared them to not carry it”.
Almost all the journalists Newslaundry spoke to were extremely hesitant about discussing the issue, and only agreed to do so on the condition of anonymity. More than one reporter said that they did not want to discuss the issue via a telephone call because they feared that their phones were being tapped.
A senior journalist with a local English news channel blamed the lack of coverage on the “revenue models” of Assam’s media houses.
It should be noted that the leading dailies in the state are the Sentinel, Assam Tribune, Amar Asom and Asom Protidin. Leading news channels include DY365, Prag News, News18 Northeast and Pratidin Times. None of these organisations were available for comment.
“Ninety percent of Assam media depends on advertisements from the Assam government,” the journalist said. “This is the revenue model that exists in Assam which makes it very easy to arm-twist. And the government remains unquestioned.”
The situation became worse after the pandemic and lockdown, the journalist said, with newsrooms seeing pay cuts of 20-30 percent. “Earlier, there were media houses that broke out from the government's clutches, including my own, but this time it has not been the case because of the revenue problem.”
According to the journalist, portals like the Wire and Crosscurrent have an advantage because “their revenue model is different and they work in a different way”. Also, they added, “the Wire has got a legal notice which acts as a deterrent and a kind of threat to us local media. That’s why nobody wants to get into it.”
‘Media houses threatened, blackmailed’
Activist and MLA Akhil Gogoi described this alleged media blackout as the “darkest period of democracy in the history of Assam”.
Not only was the “scam” not reported on by Assam’s mainstream media, he said, but press conferences by opposition leaders – including two addressed by him – were ignored too.
“At least four opposition leaders, including the Congress, AIUDF, Raijor Dal, and Assam Jatiya Parishad, addressed separate press conferences on this land scam a week ago,” Gogoi said. “But nobody from the Assamese media broadcast or published that news.”
December 20 was the first day of the winter session of the Assam assembly, Gogoi added. Two hours were spent trying to get the subject of the land scam admitted for discussion. Opposition parties then staged a . Yet the issue was disregarded by the speaker and the media, which did not report on the walkout.
“All other proceedings in the assembly were broadcast as a live programme,” he said. “However, the land scam discussion was not broadcast. Question hour was broadcast, the proceedings after the discussion were shown – but the land scam discussion was not.”
Gogoi is right. The news did not feature on the front page of top local dailies on December 21, including the Sentinel, Asom Protidin and Amar Asom.
on the front page that focused on the adjournment of the house for 10 minutes. It did not mention the chief minister’s connection to the alleged scam. “On the notice over land policy,” the report said, “the speaker said there was no data on the subject and the notice was brought on the basis of a media report.”
With respect to TV news, and focused on the house’s reaction to going paperless. covered the adjournment motion proceedings to admit the land scam into discussion, but did not mention Sarma’s name in connection with it.
Gogoi blamed it on two reasons.
“The first reason is that the political situation of Assam is not democratic now,” he said. “It is like a dictatorship and no voice can be raised against the government. The second reason is that media houses are being threatened and blackmailed by the government. They have been told that if any media house broadcasts this news, then they will not receive advertisement revenue from them.”
This had been corroborated by the senior journalist, who also said that since the case was pertaining to land, it was even more “murky”, with “layers of court orders, executive orders, and land policies”.
“As a standing rule, my newsroom never covers a land issue unless there is a clear court order in the matter,” they said. “However, I agree that the press conferences organised by the opposition leaders should have been covered. I can tell you this: the story has evoked a lot of heartburn, debates and retaliation in newsrooms across the state.”
Newslaundry reached out to the directorate of information and public relations of the Assam government but was not connected with the director over call. A questionnaire was also sent by email; this report will be updated if we receive a response.
Newslaundry reached out to Siddharth Varadarajan, founding editor of the Wire, to ask about the legal notice.
Varadarajan said, "Our story is entirely based on government documents and the observations the government itself made about these plots of land. We also put a series of specific questions to Vashishtha Realtors and its promoters and waited a few days for a reply, which never came. Now, the company has written to us saying the plots it purchased were unencumbered and that there was no bar on their sale. This is their claim, which others dispute."
He added, "Moreover, the second, crucial element of our story stands unchallenged: the pattern of these sales. Virtually all of these transactions involved the purchase of land by the company soon after the government transferred the plots to either welfare bodies or supposedly needy individuals. Is it a coincidence that a bunch of random people just happened to be given plots in a prime area by the government around the time that the company was interested in acquiring land? Why didn't the company directly approach the government for land if it had a need and if indeed the law allowed it to take possession of such plots directly?"
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